Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Our bus breaks-down in Mexico. Part I.

Back in the summer of 1975 when I manned el esquina caliente (the hot corner) for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League, a detour by the team bus fairly changed my life.

We were on the road, traveling by team bus from Guadalajara, where we had played a four-game set against the Charros de Jalisco—the Cowboys—to face Los Diablos Rojos del Mexico, the Mexico City Red Devils. Los Diablos were the class of the league and had been since it was founded in 1940. They were the Yankees del Sud…the Yankees of the South, winning league championships in 1956, 1964, 1968, 1973 and 1974.

Maybe it was the terror of playing the Red Devils that did it, but for whatever reason, our driver, the usually reliable Edgar “Gordo” Batista, veered around traffic on route 15D and onto a local highway, also called route 15. This sent us south through Zamora, Jacona, Zacupu—and past a hundred dusty little villages that were little more than a Pepsi-Cola sign and a shack or two—and before we knew it, we were as lost moth in a cyclone.

This wasn’t the road to Mexico City. This was high up in the mountains, where the dirty air was clean and the heat was chilled. Instead of travelling due east from Guadalajara, Gordo, our bus driver and equipment manager had driven due south. After two or three hours on the road, we were farther away from Mexico City than we were when we started.

These were the days, of course, before GPS. These were the days when you could get good and lost. So lost, no one knew where you were or how to get to where you were going.

Hector and Gordo went at it. “Papilla de cerebros,” Hector said to Gordo. “Mush for brains.”

Gordo stopped the bus, opened the swinging doors and sat on a boulder on the side of the road. And he cried.

“We will be lost forever,” he cried when Hector came to comfort him. “We will never come back.”

Mexico was like that in 1975. There were roads that seemed to travel in only one direction, the wrong one. And Gordo was sad.

Hector got him back in the bus, and once again we headed due south. Before long we started seeing signs, beaten, bullet riddled signs for a small city in the highlands called Uruapan, Ooo ru pahn. Gordo sped toward that place. Hoping it would put us closer to our destination, Mexico City, rather than farther away.

The men on the bus, my teammates, mostly slept, or played music on their radios or horsed about. We looked out the window. We thought about girls. Or home. Or girls at home. The hours and the miles passed.

We reached Uruapan. There was a painted sign across the road as we drove into the town. “Uruapan. La Capital de Aquacate del Mundo.” Uruapan. The Avocado Capital of the World.

The bus sputtered under the sign toward the center of the small, clean town. There were colorful banners everywhere, announcing the Festival de Aquacate, the Festival of Avocados. We had at least reached a place where we could wash our faces, grab a cerveza and a meal, get directions and get to Mexico City.

But no.

The bus died, just as we reached the town’s central plaza.

Three men joined Gordo as he looked under the hood. They poked at the engine. They checked the radiator. The belts. Finally, we all got out and pushed the bus to a small garage where there were three more men and an assortment of old Fords and Volkswagens, all with their hoods up, some resting on cinderblocks.

It would take hours, said one mechanic.

It won’t be until the morning, said another. “We have to go to Patzcuaro,” a town 30 miles away for parts.

Soon a short, fat man came over to the garage. We quickly discerned that he was the mayor or Uruapan. In short order, he was deep in conversation with our Hector Quesadillo.

“You are the great Hector Quesadillo,” the mayor began. “I am Jose Castenadez. I played baseball when I was young.”

Mostly when you’re a ballplayer people talk to you about how they used to play ball. A large number of them were one pitch away, or two, from having achieved greatness. Hector didn’t take Castenadez’s bait.

“I am mayor of Uruapan. This is my city,” he said and we scanned the dusty buildings that surrounded the plaza. “We are the Avocado Capital of the World.”

These were the early days—at least for Americans, of avocados—before the Guacamole revolution. Being the Avocado Capital of the World didn’t sound all that impressive to me.

“We would like to have our local boys play a game with your squad. A friendly game in our small and humble stadium. Afterwards, we will commence the avocado festival, crown La Reina de Avocado and have a hardy meal for all of us. In the evening, you and your boys, you can stay—for free of charge—at our humble town hotel, of which I am the proprietor.”

“Es bueno,” Hector said, shaking the mayor’s hand.

“At the ballpark, just down this road, we will meet at four. I will gather up our local boys to form a team, and bring also the Queens of the Avocado. Until then,” he walked off, as did we, walking to the small stadium.

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